'Moscow Calling: Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent' by Angus Roxburgh (Birlinn)
These days we frequently hear of the declining number of teachers and students of foreign languages. English, we are told, is becoming a world language, so what's the point of taking the trouble to master the language of any other country? Well any young person hesitating over whether to take up the study of a foreign language would do well to read this book.
Born in England but brought up in Scotland, Angus Roxburgh became fascinated by Russian at school, and went to study the language for five years at the universities of Aberdeen and Zurich. That decision was the key to the remarkable and hugely rewarding life he went on to lead as a foreign correspondent. His book, an excellent example of a professional autobiography, explores in detail that fascinating life. By describing it as a 'professional' autobiography I'm indicating that while the book is rich and full in evoking Roxburgh's depth of feeling about his Russian experience, there is nothing here of a Rousseauesque, emotional, confessional kind. (I suspect that there will be many readers who share my surprise in learning late on that the author's marriage to Neilian, with whom he shared his life in Russia, had come to an end.)
Soon after completing his Russian studies at university, Roxburgh got himself a job in Moscow. In October 1978, he arrived there to work as a translator at 'Progress', the Soviet Union's largest foreign language publishing house. Two years later he decided against extending his job into a third year, and returned to Glasgow. Teaching Russian, Neilian became the main breadwinner while Angus enrolled as a doctoral student at Glasgow University working on Pravda and the Soviet mass media, but his ambition was to establish himself as a journalist with a special expertise in Russian affairs. The Glasgow Herald helped by publishing a few articles, and later the Economist did likewise, but otherwise these years in the early 1980s were the most difficult of Roxburgh's professional life. His attempt to establish a career for himself as a journalist seemed to be going nowhere.
However, in 1984 he got a job with the BBC Monitoring Service where he listened in to Soviet news bulletins, transcribing anything of interest. Soon his work involved monitoring Soviet TV as well. None of this was exactly journalism but it got him a coveted NUJ card – and he continued to have the odd article published.
The big breakthrough seemed to come in 1985. Roxburgh had been working on a profile of the short-lived Russian general secretary Konstantin Chernenko for the Sunday Times, but when he died and was succeeded by Mikhail Gorbachev, the paper asked him at short notice to produce an account of the new Soviet leader. His piece duly appeared on the Sunday Times editorial page. Roxburgh described it as 'the most thrilling moment of my life'. But once again his career as a journalist seemed to stall.
In 1986 he moved to the BBC Russian Service and the following year 'Newsnight' sent him to Russia with the senior correspondent Charles Wheeler to do a series of reports on the reforms that Gorbachev was beginning to put in place. Not long afterwards a meeting with the foreign editor of the Guardian led to a job on that paper's foreign desk, but a mere three months later the big moment finally arrived: Roxburgh was appointed the Sunday Times Moscow correspondent. He held that post from 1987-1989; in 1991-97 he was the BBC Moscow correspondent; and in 1998-2005 he was BBC's Europe correspondent. These jobs all involved returning to Russia on many occasions, and sometimes for lengthy periods. Roxburgh had become a recognised Russian expert
To my mind Roxburgh's success had two main sources. One was simply a matter of good luck: his time in Russia happened to coincide with one of the most momentous events in 20th-century European history: the slow disintegration of Stalin's Soviet Union under Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin – leading finally to the emergence of Putin. To witness and report on such a dramatic story would have been any foreign correspondent’s dream.
The second source of Roxburgh's eventual triumph was his initial decision to take up a job with the Moscow publisher Progress. For these first two years in Russia, Roxburgh worked and lived the life of an ordinary Russian citizen. He tells us that in these two years in Moscow he had no contact with any western official. He soon became friendly with a range of Russians – and many of them became friends for life. On his many later returns to Moscow he always made a point of catching up with them. This meant that all the time he was hearing what ordinary Russians were making of the momentous changes they were caught up in. Most expert commentators, academic historians, or Western officials were reporting on Russia from the outside. Roxburgh had earned the right to be an insider.
As a result, among the finest chapters in his book are those detailing just what it was like to live under the Soviet regime. Here is the first sentence of chapter four: 'Sadly the quest for Russia's soul usually took second place to the search for food'. This establishes the tone – gently ironic – of much that is to follow. Russia turns out to be a bureaucratic nightmare. Soviet planning of every aspect of daily life is farcical – the simplest transaction involves endless form-filling and being passed from one bureaucrat to another – none of whom are able to make a final decision.
'At times like this', Roxburgh writes, 'one seriously pondered whether the Soviet way of life had been devised by raving lunatics'. 'The iron rule of Soviet life', he suggests, 'was: if there isn't a rule, invent one'. Then shop shelves are frequently entirely empty. News that a food delivery has arrived means that enormous queues immediately form. A two-hour wait to reach a check-out is quite normal. And, of course, such food as was available was abysmal – at least by Western European standards.
How then did Roxburgh's Russian friends survive? He seems frequently to have mulled over that question. They rarely complained – rather 'they seemed resigned to the raw deal that was their unfortunate birthright'. 'They "emigrated" to an inner world of poetry or science, philosophy and longing, and animated discussions at their kitchen tables' – while invariably drinking vast quantities of vodka. Roxburgh's conclusion was that 'taking everything together – the hardships, the good times, and the comfort brought by acceptance of one's lot – the Russians were probably no unhappier than Americans or Britons or any other people in the affluent and free West. Worrying about mortgages, muggings, high prices, and finding a job, was not necessarily less of a burden than the particular cares that marked the Soviet way of life'. (The implication is that Russians at least were free from that list of worries.)
Roxburgh's first-hand knowledge of life under the old regime gives an added spice to his account of its demise. It's as if he is reacting exactly as ordinary Russians were. But by any standard his account of every twist and turn in that history is vivid and compelling – including his description of how under Yeltsin, the switch from socialism to unconstrained capitalism, which allowed the emergence of that band of oligarchs who now seem to own half of London and its football teams, made most Russians in the early years of their 'freedom' worse off than in the past.
I suspect that my account may have given the impression that 'Moscow Calling' is exclusively about Moscow. Nothing could be further from the truth. Roxburgh at different times was able to travel the length and breadth of the Soviet Union including those areas that quickly reclaimed their independence when Russia returned to its original boundaries. His reporting is always immensely informative. Never more so than in his later account of the war in Chechnya. That war raged from December 1994 to the autumn of 1996. His chapters evoking its horrors are the most moving in an absorbing book.
A footnote. Some readers may recall that Roxburgh got himself into trouble over his decision to accept a post in the public relations department of Putin's Kremlin in 2006. He defends that decision here, but not everyone will be persuaded that it was the right one to make.